Hello, I hope you are not too exhausted after the first few days of school. Everyone I know is working ridiculously hard, and is so frustrated that so many of the issues sucking so much of their time have nothing to do with teaching and learning. So this is a reminder to pay attention to your breathing, look into the middle distance every so often, get up and move at least a couple of times an hour (ha! I wish!), and get outside as much as possible.
And through it all, remember that there is always a bigger goal than the one you are working on at any given moment. Even in the midst of all this stress and drama, we need to be thinking about how what we are doing right now builds towards a brighter future – if I know anything, it is that that bright future is not waiting around a corner; we are going to have to create it. In other words, you need to be strategic.
So what does that mean, to be strategic? Many people in education associate “strategic” with strategic plans, which is unfortunate, because often those plans are big and cumbersome and proclaim a completely unreasonable degree of certainty about what is going to happen over the course of the next 3-5 years. For example, no school district had a strategic plan that had “cope with a pandemic” as one of its strategic priorities for the 19-20 school year. To be strategic is not to lay out an exquisitely detailed plan for reaching your goals. To be strategic is to always act with a bigger goal in mind, to treat such action as an experiment, and to learn from what you do. Being strategic can exist at a variety of scales – from what you do in the next 5 minutes to what you plan to do over the next 5 years.
I am always looking for good articles and books on strategy and strategic thinking, partly because I co-wrote a book about strategy so I’m supposed to be some kind of expert, and partly because I see leaders and coaches make choices all the time that don’t seem to me to be particularly strategic. There is a fabulous resource that I found recently Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty, which I have mentioned about before and need to unpack more. This HBR article is kind of an odd mix of advice about developing strategic thinking skills: set aside time to think, pay attention to how you lay out your thoughts and arguments, discern patterns and themes, and ask tough questions. It strikes me that you can do all those things and still not be strategic. This HBR article is a bit better – but it too ends up being a bit of a grab-bag involving discerning patterns and inviting dissent. My favorite book on strategic thinking is called Being Strategic, by Erika Andersen – here is an outline of the book; I highly recommend it. And then there is this Amy Edmondson article that I have mentioned numerous times but is still one of my favorites – my colleague Richard wrote a thoughtful blog post with a similar message.
Here’s how a coach would scaffold your thinking to be more strategic:
- What do you want to get out of this conversation?
- What is it you are trying to achieve – what’s the vision?
- Where are you now, relative to that target?
- What have you thought about already?
- What are your options?
- What other options do you have?
- Which of these is most likely to help you meet your longer term goal?
- What are the potential downsides?
- What do you want to try next?
- How will you know if you’ve been successful?
- What help do you want from me?
When I write about coaching like that, it sounds so simple.
That’s the core of what I wanted to get across in this Coaching Letter, but if they’re useful, here are some fun mini-case studies. Some of the names have been changed, but they are all true:
Bobby was upset at the way a teacher spoke to her during a meeting – Bobby had been speaking about district plans for SEL, and the teacher only just stopped short of calling Bobby a liar. Bobby, not unreasonably, was appalled at the teacher’s behavior and was planning on calling the teacher in to express her disapproval and disappointment. However, Bobby realized that the larger goal was to ensure the smooth implementation of the SEL plan, and that conversation with the teacher might backfire if it gave the teacher the opportunity to complain to their colleagues that they’d been yelled at by the assistant superintendent—so much for SEL!!! So instead Bobby reached out to the teacher and asked to learn more about their objections so that she might incorporate their feedback into the plan. The teacher was surprised, impressed, embarrassed, and sheepish, and turned out to be a big help.
Mary Liz’s school had the district’s only middle school bilingual special education classroom. Finding a bilingual special education teacher for the program was almost impossible, so Mary Liz hired the only applicant, even though she thought he was a bit crazy. But she needed a teacher for that class. And he turned out to be really crazy, as well as incompetent and chronically late to school. After a weird and apparently unrelated series of events including a school shed on fire in the middle of the night and an allegation of assault, the teacher was placed on administrative leave and then fired. The district special education supervisor pointed out to Mary Liz that the bigger goal was to meet the needs of the students, not to find a replacement teacher, and that they should work together to better meet those needs. The students in the program had a variety of needs, and once the district stopped thinking about their first language as the sole determinant of their programming and started thinking about their educational needs more broadly, they were all provided plans that were much more successful (and not just because they no longer had a crazy teacher).
Seamus was extremely smart and creative and knowledgeable and skilled. He could charm an auditorium full of people and also write detailed and beautiful plans. He was capable of moving very fast and getting things done, so when the superintendent asked Seamus to create an instructional model for the district, he had created it by noon the following day and it looked like a team of graphic designers had produced it. He was about to “roll it out” to the teachers and leaders in the district when one of the coaches pointed out to him that there was a bigger goal at stake – that the educators in the district have a shared understanding of what high quality instruction look like. Seamus saw immediately what the teacher was getting at – that if the model was “delivered” to teachers, then the challenge was always going to be about him and his ability to transmit what he meant when he created the model. Further, he saw that the fact that the model was really good (he wasn’t modest) actually added to the challenge, because it would communicate that it wasn’t meant to be tampered with or adjusted. So he scrapped his exquisite, almost-perfect work and replaced it with a bare-bones framework, drawn in pencil, that invited elaboration, amendment, and meaning-making. The teachers enjoyed pulling it apart and talking about what mattered and, through these conversations, moved closer to a truly shared understanding of high quality instruction.
Chris is superintendent of a medium-sized district that has been “doing equity work” for several years. What started as a seemingly straightforward quest to improve access and success of traditionally under-served students became increasingly fraught as the implications of this work for the “grammar of schooling” became increasingly clear – discipline policy, grading, start and end times, homework, gifted programs, AP enrollment, and so on. And then, on top of all this, a huge political backlash started around Antiracism, Critical Race Theory, and the 1619 Project – none of which was being directly taught in the school system, but that didn’t seem to matter. In the face of what felt like coordinated attacks on Chris and complaints to the Board, Chris was tempted to take on the critics, whom she expected were being manipulated. The Board chair pulled her aside and pointed out that being right was beside the point, that they had to figure out how to maintain their trajectory while also not disparaging the critics (who were, after all, also stakeholders) but also not getting sucked in to a tit-for-tat argument that would only fuel the situation. They decided to set aside some time to consider their options.
All this is to say that we are in a moment when there are so many challenges that it is easy to forget that there is something bigger at stake, but there is always something bigger at stake; and when things are most fraught is when it is hardest to remember that bigger goal, but it is also when that bigger goal is most important. So take a minute, remind yourself of your bigger goal, let others help you, and reach out to encourage. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
CCSC Services to Districts
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Practices Routledge